This is Joshua Wehner's archaic Blog

Guy movies, round n+1

As is my tradition when Liz is away exploring exotic locales and I am left to my own devices, I have checked out a few recent "guy movies" that I missed in theatres.

Last night, I watched "A History of Violence", where Viggo Mortensen defends his boring, small-town life from a couple of passing vulgar thugs and is then revealed to be a old-time-thug-gone-straight himself. After watching it, I struggled to make heads or tails of what I'd seen and experienced. Looking at reviews of the movie online, I found glowing reviews from Roger Ebert and the Onion's A.V. Club, whose criticism I frequently enjoy.

This movie has to be one of the most over-rated movies I've ever indulged in. In my opinion, it's nowhere near as good as the other reviews suggest. Ostensibly, the movie is about Mortensen's character's choice(s) to engage in violence — how (or whether) it defines his character, whether he can really escape it or not — and how his family, who've only known his "nice guy" persona, will react. But it just doesn't work.

I'm not sure if it's the acting or directing that sinks it, but I walked away entirely unconvinced that Mortensen's character made any choices at all. We recently watched "Owning Mahowny", where Phillip Seymour Hoffman brilliantly portrays a bank manager hopelessly addicted to gambling, in a way that better conveyed the character's continual choice to wallow in his addiction. In "Violence", Mortensen seems to react with violence rather than engage in violence, which seems to undercut the movie's premise.

I also thought about the HBO/BBC series "Rome" which, in it's first season at least, brought us two characters (Titus and Vorenus) adapting — rather, failing to adapt to a post-wartime life of nonviolence. Watching Vorenus struggle with the choice to become a mobster's enforcer, or Pullo's "insta-death" reaction to news that a rival was to marry his love, told me more about the difficulty of leaving a life of violence than Mortensen's character's stoic acceptance did.

In fact, I think I would have much preferred a movie that started with Mortensen-the-thug, deciding to quit, and then moved into the movie I saw. That might have sufficed to fix my attention on the choices being made, rather than the consequences. As it is, "Violence" is a poor-quality AEsop's fable, with no moral punchline at the end. (And maybe worked better in a graphic novel, where it might serve as a counter-point to that genre's intrinsic "fisticuffs as a solution" metaphor.)

That brought to mind the fantastic "build-up to war" documentary "Why We Fight", and how it might interpret the title. If "Violence" was intended as an analogy to the modern war regime, it's completely lost on me.

Still, on some level, I have to admit, it successfully forced me contemplate the issues it wanted to raise, if only to conclude that it failed to raise them.

So, last night, I go to bed thinking "there's just no way to make a fictional movie that deals successfully with the violence inherent in our society" and this morning's movie totally proved that wrong.

"City of God" was very much not the movie I expected it to be: with the cover photo of a beautiful beach and a couple about to kiss, I expected something more along the lines of a "something's rotten in paradise" theme. Instead, as it starts out with a backporch barbecue and an escaping chicken, I'm thinking "well, that's interesting, but..."

Then the chicken escapes, and the chasing barbecuers are revealed to be a gang of young hoodlums, hurtling through the streets. A boy comes close to capturing the chicken, and is literally and figuratively caught between the chasing gang and the arriving police — both parties armed to the teeth. Then the camera swirls around the boy — feeling like something out of the Matrix — and transports us back in time to an earlier, slightly less slummy slum, and the boy, an aspiring photographer and our narrator, takes us on a historical tour of the gangs in his neighborhood.

The narrative spans three generations of gangs, focusing on a junior member of the first, who grows up to be the boss of the slums in the second and largest portion of the movie, and is finally taken down by his juniors in the finale. In between, the movie shows how various characters in and around the slums — corrupt cops, army marksmen back from Vietnam, affluent drug-addicts — get sucked into the void, struggle, and fail to escape. Our narrator seems permanently, miraculously rooted in a spot just on the periphery of the devolving situation.

The central character — Li'l Dice, who grows into Li'l Ze (or Ze Pequeno) — is ruthless is his pursuit of power, devoid of traditional bounds of morality, and only barely guided by even a sense of "honor among thieves". And yet, it's hard to blame him for his choices, as they frequently work out better for him than not. Unlike modern gangster films (or the "Sopranos") that seem to want to lionize their "godfathers", Ze is clearly to be pitied, not envied — we see him as a sad, lonely boy, who struggles to gain acceptance, but settles for dominance.

"City of God" is better deserving of the title "A History of Violence", and yet, I can't quite decide which film (if any) is the more violent. "City of God" contains more acts of violence, certainly. It portrays a culture steeped in violent reprisal, and severe child violence, yet, it's less gruesome or gory than the blood-drenched "Violence", which uses otherwise impressive technological gimmicks to show bullets going through faces more than once. Either way, I can't recommend "Violence" to anyone I like, but I will heartily recommend "City".

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